Tag Archive | "agriculture"

Self-reported cattle deaths reveal minor losses to predators

Self-reported cattle deaths reveal minor losses to predators

How many cattle are there in the United States? How many die each year from respiratory illnesses or bad weather? And why should you care?

The answers to the first two questions can be found in a new report from USDA released at the end of December, Cattle and Calves Nonpredator Death Loss in the United States, 2010. Produced by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), this report offers a rundown of cattle and calf losses in 2010, organized by cause of death, size group, and region.

Out of the 1.7 million cattle deaths in 2010, non-predator causes accounted for an overwhelming 97.7%. Out of these 1.7 million losses, respiratory problems were the biggest culprit, having caused more than a quarter of non-predator deaths, followed by “other” and unknown causes, weather and calving problems. Numbers are similar for calves, with 92% of the 2.3 million calf deaths accounted for by non-predator causes. Respiratory problems again ranked high (29% of all losses), followed by digestive problems (17%).

If 1.7 million sounds like a lot to you, you may be surprised to learn that this number is actually only 2.3 percent of the entire U.S. cattle stock. A January 1st inventory this past year counted 92.6 million cattle and calves. That’s one cow for every three Americans!

The answer to the last question – why you should care – is that the future of wolves relies in part on our ability to address conflicts with livestock. Accurately assessing livestock losses helps us to better understand the scope of the problem. It also shows us opportunities to develop solutions that promote coexistence between wolves and livestock.

Understanding interactions between livestock and predators like the gray wolf is crucial to finding ways to coexist.

The numbers in this report highlight how small a fraction of nationwide cattle losses are from predators. The magnitude of livestock losses to wolves and other predators is often blown out of proportion, and predators are often quick to be blamed for livestock deaths. As this report shows, respiratory, digestive, weather and calving problems take a far greater toll on the cattle industry each year than do hungry wolves, grizzly bears, and other predators.

According to a related report based on self-reporting by cattle producers that NASS released last May, Cattle Death Loss, 4% of all cattle and calf losses were caused by predators. Of these, 53% were reportedly caused by coyotes. Unknown predators were blamed for 12% of losses, followed by dogs (10%) and mountain lions, bobcats, and other big cats (9%). Only 4% and 1% of predator-caused losses were from wolves and bears, respectively.

These low numbers are particularly significant because these statistics are self-reported, derived from surveying a random sample of U.S. cattle producers (excluding Alaska). Self-reported statistics are less reliable than verified reports confirmed by trained wildlife managers. The cause of death can be tricky to identify, particularly if time passes between the animal’s death and when it is discovered. For example, it can be hard to tell the difference between a cow that predators have actually killed and one that predators have simply scavenged after it died of other causes. In addition, the sample does not include surveys from all livestock operators, and surveys that were included are subject to omissions, duplications, and mistakes in data collection and reporting.

As an example of potential discrepancies between self-reported and verified numbers, NASS’s Cattle Death Loss reports that 4,437 head of cattle were lost to wolves across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in 2010. This is 23 times higher than the same number reported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (188 losses), data that is confirmed by trained field agents based on evidence collected from the depredation site in addition to the rancher’s report. Although verified reports cannot capture all livestock losses, it does not make sense that the actual number reported by cattle producers is 23 times greater than the losses verified by wildlife biologists, particularly for a heavily monitored species like the wolf that mostly rely on native wildlife for their food. Despite the overestimates, these reports still illustrate just how small the impact of predator-caused losses is on the cattle industry as compared to other causes.

Although predators cause a small fraction of total cattle losses each year, Defenders recognizes that these losses can more concentrated in regions and communities with more large predators, and can have meaningful impacts on individual ranchers. We are working on the ground to help livestock producers and predators coexist, using proactive, nonlethal approaches to managing conflicts with predators. These tools include using fladry (rope strung with colorful flags that can be electrified), range riders, livestock guard dogs, fencing, and alternative grazing strategies. When verified predator-caused losses have happened, livestock depredation compensation programs have helped offset the financial burden of depredations and foster tolerance for these important predators. Learn more about our coexistence work.


Download USDA’s Cattle and Calves Nonpredator Death Loss in the United States, 2010 here, and Cattle Death Loss here. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data on cattle losses in the Northern Rockies can be seen here.

Posted in Agriculture, Imperiled WildlifeComments (2)

Conservation Principles for the Next Farm Bill

Conservation Principles for the Next Farm Bill

Cutting the federal deficit doesn’t mean that conservation should be on the chopping block. Fifty-six organizations from the across the country are saying the same thing when it comes to the 2012 Farm Bill. The groups, representing a wide variety of policy and advocacy organizations, released guiding conservation principles that Congress should use when drafting the next farm bill.

The set of principles focus on four key areas: maintaining baseline funding for conservation programs within the farm bill, enforcing and strengthening conservation compliance provisions, targeting conservation dollars and streamlining programs for maximum efficiency and results, and ensuring equitable access to these programs. Using these principles means that conservation funds will be used more wisely, resulting in greater environmental benefits without additional funding.

It is not just the 56 groups that think these principles should guide our agricultural policy. The 2011 Survey on Agriculture and the Environment suggests that a majority of Americans agree that agricultural policy should prioritize conservation, especially protecting soil and water quality. With the long-range vision that many of our current leaders seem to lack, the poll shows that Americans favor funding conservation practices today in order to keep costs down in the future. Instead of cutting conservation, people would rather see cuts come from subsidy programs for commodities and crop insurance. Let’s hope that Congress takes this to heart and uses the conservation principles released on Wednesday to find creative ways to continue to make conservation an important part of our nation’s agricultural policy.

Posted in AgricultureComments (0)

House votes to block helping farmers prepare for more droughts, floods, and pests

Coauthored by Aimee Delach

In a disturbing trend of attacking the government’s ability to prepare for climate risks, the House passed an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Agriculture spending bill that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from implementing its new departmental regulation on climate change adaptation.  This amendment puts the nation at increased risk of food disruptions, forest fires, and huge economic losses.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who introduced the amendment, bizarrely claimed USDA’s climate adaptation policy was somehow a “backdoor door attempt to put a cap-and-trade program in place in the Department of Agriculture.”

Far from it.  The commonsense 2-page USDA policy (pdf) says only that agencies should plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships.  It reads, “Through adaptation planning, USDA will develop, prioritize, implement and evaluate actions to minimize climate risks and exploit new opportunities that climate change will bring.”

Tying the USDA’s hand with respect to preparing for climate change seems like a particularly bad idea while the nation is immersed in intense weather and climate-related disasters that are impacting agriculture and forestry– from the Mississippi River flood, to the Texas drought, to the Arizona fire.

According to Texan Matt Farmer:

“It’s as dry as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime,” said Farmer, 51, a plainspoken Texan not given to hyperbole. “I don’t remember a drought this widespread. I’ve got a lot of country that’s blowing, but I can’t do a thing about it.”

And the irony of Congressman Scalise’s amendment is that he is from Louisiana, which is not only bearing the brunt of much of the record Mississippi River flooding, but is simultaneously under a state-wide severe drought. Some farmers are getting hit with both extremes at once:

“I can’t get my crop out of one side of the levee because it’s too dry and I’ve lost my crop on the other side of the levee because it’s floating away,” said George Lacour, 48, of Morganza, [Louisiana] another farmer trying to juggle the seeming paradox.

The conditions we are seeing this year are breaking records around the country.  While La Niña is probably partly to blame, this year’s events are also consistent with the conditions researchers project are coming with climate change.  Looking at the past record would not have prepared anyone for the events this year – and the future is going to be different yet.

USDA’s climate change adaptation policy would have required agencies to plan for future changes in climate variability and extreme events on USDA programs to prepare for and adjust to anticipated changes.  The regulation is designed to ensure that “taxpayer resources are invested wisely and that USDA services and operations remain effective in current and future climate conditions.” 

The USDA itself is well aware of the challenges climate change will pose for its mission. They lay the problem out quite clearly in their 2010 Climate Change Science Plan:

As the climate changes, those responsible for managing land and water resources will need new information to help with their decision-making. For example, producers will need information to guide them on what to plant, when to plant, and what management strategies to employ during the growing season. Foresters, farmers, and ranchers will need information for management of risks posed by pests and fire. Water resource managers will need information for allocation of water resources between the demands of urban and rural populations, industry, biofuels, agriculture, and ecosystem services. USDA policymakers will need information to guide them in implementing or retooling programs impacting or impacted by climate change. At all levels, global food production data and projections will be necessary for anticipating large-scale socioeconomic feedbacks into U.S. production systems.

Here are some examples of the agencies in USDA and how they are responding to climate change and variability.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s principal in-house research agency. ARS has a wide-ranging research program, including:

These and other research questions are vitally important for the maintenance of crop, livestock and human health under a changing climate.

Farm Service Agency (FSA) As the manager of disaster assistance and other commodity programs, FSA is on the front lines of the impact of weather and climate on our nation’s agricultural producers.  Just last month, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wrote to the USDA to seek Secretarial disaster declarations for 26 parishes, on the grounds that “Agricultural producers in the basin will face significant damage and loss to cropland and livestock as a result” of record flooding that forced the opening of the Morganza spillway.

Louisiana Rep. Salise’s amendment would prevent FSW from properly fulfilling its mission as administrator of these disaster programs if it can’t take climate change into account. The separate but related Risk Management Agency, which makes disaster declarations and determines insured cropland eligibility in disaster situations also needs the capabilities to anticipate and respond to climate change and variability.

Forest Service (FS) administers 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that belong to all Americans and also provides research and technical assistance to all forest landowners. In order to protect forest resources, species and ecosystems, and human life and property on and adjacent to forest lands, the Forest Service needs to be able to evaluate, prepare for and respond to climate change impacts on fire frequency and severity, invasive species, forest pests, and other ecosystem dynamics.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) NRCS provides leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, maintain and improve our natural resources and environment.

NRCS conservation programs assist producers and rural communities to reduce erosion, use water resources more efficiently, protect and enhance wildlife habitat, and more. These conservation investments will produce better results if they are done in a climate-smart fashion.

Don’t we want our government agencies to doing this important work to prepare for the changes ahead? 

In a statement issued in response the amendment, Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president for Defenders of Wildlife, said, “America’s farms, forests and ranchlands not only feed our country, but also help support abundant and diverse wildlife populations. Our food security, property and wildlife heritage are all at risk from increased frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, floods, fires and pests.

“Rep. Scalise and the 237 other members of the House are inhibiting the USDA’s ability to help farmers and forest owners and managers prepare for a future that includes more of the extreme weather events we have just experienced this spring. The future is not going to be the same as the past. This commonsense USDA policy says let’s plan for that future in a way that will prevent food disruptions, massive forest fires and economic hardships.”

The Senate should do right by the country’s farmers, forests and the people and wildlife that rely on them, and reject this amendment.

Posted in Agriculture, Climate ChangeComments (1)

Federal Subsidies for Members of Congress

The Environmental Working Group broke its latest story on the 23 Members of Congress (or their spouses) who are recipients of U.S. agriculture subsidies .  Between 1995 and 2009, six Democrats received an estimated $489,000 in payments and 17 Republicans received $5.3 million.

Combining EWG’s report with the Center for Responsive Politics database tracking the personal fortunes of Members of Congress, you can see that there are more than a dozen members with a net worth of more than a million dollars also receiving agriculture subsidies.  Of note, Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) and her husband likely received more than $460,000 in support and Iowa Congressman Tom Latham received $330,000.  Their average net worth was $8.4 million and $5.3 million, respectively.

You can listen to Congresswoman Harzler talk to ABC News about her farm subsidies here .

Posted in AgricultureComments (0)

National Security is Natural Security

The New York Times ran a story over the weekend called, “Why We Might Fight” about the role of the environment and natural resources in driving future conflicts.   In a series of five examples, Thom Shanker talks about how desertification, pollution, overuse of water and climate change may drive future international conflicts.  The subject has spawned new academic research programs and new non-government organizations dedicated to the development of ‘natural security’ policy.

Shanker doesn’t talk about how the same struggle for resources or against resource pollution bedevils neighbors here at home.  In Pennsylvania, residents in small towns across the state are fighting water pollution from ‘fracking’ for natural gas occurring on nearby properties.  In Nebraska, a Public Power and Irrigation District sued upstream farm water users because they were draining a downstream reservoir important in making the state’s electricity – and feeding precious water to other farms.

Posted in Fossil Fuels, UncategorizedComments (0)

Biodiversity as an ecosystem service: what to measure, how, and why?

The G8+5 recently released a report titled “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature” that argues that the current financial system is fundamentally flawed – not because of the recent meltdowns, but because it does not account for the provision, use, or loss of ecosystem services such as clean air and water, flood mitigation, and natural pollination. It predicts that failing to address this problem will continue to harm not only ecological but also economic and social systems. The emerging ideas of ecosystem services and ecosystem markets represent interesting new thinking about the benefits provided by natural systems, how those benefits are represented in economic systems, and what kinds of policies and economic tools might be used to make sure they persist into the future.

One of the first and most significant challenges in this area lies in quantifying the services being provided. The sub-field of environmental economics has produced some innovative approaches to valuing ecological services, but assessing the value conservation land adds to local economies through property values or spending on recreation falls far short of describing what we lose when a natural area is degraded or destroyed. Emerging markets in water quality and carbon have helped to pave the way, but quantifying the value of biodiversity and other unregulated resources lags far behind.

As a result, a small cottage industry has sprung up recently around the creation of environmental metrics, tools for quantifying the ecological values provided by a particular area of land. We have participated in a few of these efforts, including the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which aims to develop environmental and social metrics for agriculture and food processing and distribution systems. We are also working on an effort to create metrics that efficiently and effectively quantify the biodiversity outcomes of conservation lands. These metrics should be useful in efforts to integrate ecosystem services into market values, but it may also be used more immediately to describe the impact of conservation incentive programs or to measure the biodiversity value of lands being placed in conservation or affected by development.

Developing metrics for ecosystem services is a small step toward the fundamental shifts in economic systems that are described in the G8+5 report, but it may prove to be a significant step in improving the outcomes of conservation efforts on the ground. The ability to reliably measure the impacts of development and the outcomes of conservation actions can help make sure we gain the best results from every dollar spent on conservation, whether that dollar comes from government incentive programs, mitigation for development, or private investment.

Posted in Paying for ConservationComments (0)

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.